Priceless Cargo

I pull out
of my wide trouser-pockets
duplicate
of a priceless cargo.
            You now:
read this
and envy,
I’m a citizen
of the Soviet Socialist Union!
Vladimir Mayakovsky “My Soviet Passport,” 1929

I was the first among my 7- year old peers who had a wristwatch. Not a heavy, old, with scratched glass and big star on the face watch, the one that grandfathers would sometimes give as a present to their grand sons. No, mine was a small and electronic acid green girly watch, which my father brought me all the way from France, all the way back in 1985. That didn’t mean we were rich. The attributes of richness of those times and that age were well known to me; blue (not brown) school uniforms from Latvia, gold tipped fountain pens, things like that. I never had any of those, but all the same no one I knew had an acid green watch. So I knew we were different, because I always had those outlandish things like small colorful plastic tubes with hotel shampoos, koh-i-noor pencils, beeping key-chains. Those things were beyond status symbols and just made us different.

Step I: Preparations

The Iron Curtain was named so not in vain, because it divided, covered and protected the Soviet citizens from the “destructive influence of the west,” the ideologies opposing Soviet values in the media, education, press, popular culture, word of mouth…you name it. Despite this, Soviet citizens’ curiosity prevailed and, already in the late 60s, the waves of Soviet tourists were travelling to the so-called “nearest abroad”, i.e. the socialist bloc. Bulgaria with its sea resorts and Hungary with its historic Budapest, Poland, Czechoslovakia and sometimes East Germany became major attractions for the organised tours. Both my mother and father have been to the socbloc countries several times, but they went abroad together only once in 1976.

“To go on a trip like this we had to write a request to the regional centre of trade unions. Since your father and I worked at different places we had to apply separately. The commission then would check our personal files to see if we were “fit” for the trip. They would check that no family or relatives went together on the same trip, but we still wanted to try. Your father had passed and was called for an instruction class, on how to behave abroad, while I wasn’t contacted at all. Finally, two days before the departure, I decided to stop by and ask about my application. Luckily, one of the people they had selected refused to go, so they just put me in instead of that person. It was a pure luck that we ended up together on the same tour.” 

As my parents put it, it was not too difficult to go abroad, but obviously, there were several obstacles. The trips were poorly advertised and cost about three monthly salary.  Often, one had to have blat in a trade union or KGB services to know about those trips. My father says he actually knew they would go to Budapest together with my mother, because he “had a good friend working in the trade union.”

One of the most obvious obstacles to going abroad was the passport. The “foreign passport,” i.e. a document for travelling abroad was never given to a person whose name was in it. My father recalls that until the very end of the 1980’s those passports were kept in regional KGB offices; after the person’s application for a trip the KGB had “to check” the personal history and, if approved, they would give the passport straight to the director of the tourist group: “Its not like we needed passports anyways, but it was definitely done to put pressure on the group and make people stick together… and of course to prevent people from running off.”

If a person was recognised morally “fit” to go abroad, s/he had to take an instruction class on how to behave abroad. Those talks contained a few useful tips about the language and customs of the country and otherwise focused heavily on the moral image of a Soviet citizen abroad. My mom recalls that they were all urged to act in “a civilized” manner, not to drink, to avoid any acquaintances or intimate contacts with foreigners, to be careful of provocations and always to remember that they were presenting the face of the USSR. Having said that, the chosen ones were blessed to go beyond the Iron Curtain.

Finally, there was the issue of money. Since the tours were all paid for, it was obvious to the state that the Soviet citizens didn’t need much money while abroad. To avoid the temptation of consumerism the soviet travellers were allowed to take up to 100 rubbles (around $160 according to the Soviet Party’s currency exchange rate, which remained unchanged for decades), and up to 2 bottles of the liquid currency, i.e. vodka. When in 1970 my mother went to her first trip abroad, to Bulgaria, my mom, an otherwise law abiding citizen, hid some money in the sole of her sandals: “I cut the sole of my sandals hid a few 10 rubble banknotes in it and glued it back to the shoe. I was terrified they would search us, but, God, I so much wanted to bring something from Bulgaria!”

Step II: Abroad

His first visit to France in 1985, my father recalls with bliss, “We were received by the French and Soviet Friendship Society. Just anyone could not have organised such a trip; only high-level institutions recognised by both states could be a part of this. Therefore, those rare tourists that did come to France had all the best. We stayed in a 4 star hotel and the Society covered most of the expenses of the trip. In fact, it’s not like we needed money; everyday we had trips that were already paid for to the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and museums. Once we had a banquet where there were cultural attachés of the USSR and France.”

“Of course on a trip of such a level there was always, as Vysotskij puts it “a person dressed in civil.” There were official guides in the groups but there were always some KGB people, who travelled incognito, without revealing their identity. Those were “emergency” people, in case there was some provocation, they could get in touch directly with the Soviet Consuls, they kept an eye on people, just to make sure no one did stupid things or intended to stay. But actually it wasn’t just simple Soviet paranoia; various organisations abroad really thought to get some embarrassing news about the USSR, so a picture of a blind-drunk Soviet tourist in Paris or a piece of news about an assault committed by a Soviet citizen would immediately be a hot news in the western media. Those were the times… In shops, museums, restaurants we would always stick together in groups of two or three, women would be always be accompanied by a man. It was safer this way, more fun, but also, everyone was sort of keeping an eye on everyone.”

“But on any trip abroad there was always space for some small initiatives and we always tried to bring some goods with us from the USSR. Vodka, souvenirs, caviar, Champaign, were all highly popular goods abroad. We even didn’t have to go anywhere to sell them; there were always some second-generation Russian immigrants, some Poles who would come to the hotels where the soviet tourists stayed. They offered to buy anything we had from the USSR. If one didn’t trust those people, the hotel staff was always buying things like that too.”

“We would always travel with Soviet rubbles. On the one hand, it was practically impossible to legally buy foreign currency in the USSR and it was very dangerous to buy it on the black market. So we could only exchange money while abroad, but we could only take very little money out of the country.  It was again a strange situation – USSR money was sought and highly acknowledged abroad, but we couldn’t take much money with us.”

Step III: After the Return 

When the Iron Curtain was up, the reasons of going through the hassle of a trip abroad were mostly two-fold: a platonic curiosity of having a glimpse of capitalism (which could conveniently multiply your prestige among your friends) and the economic drive to bring some of those marketable goods, which were so priceless in the USSR, back home.

My father recalls that bringing even few purchases from that little money they could take, could practically reimburse the whole trip, “We knew that we could sell ANYTHING from abroad, absolutely anything…. The most valuable items were of course carpets, crystal sets, tea and coffee sets…those I would bring for myself and they were a big investment. But I always tried to buy a couple of pairs of shoes, or some clothes, or a hat, or anything…I didn’t even need to go anywhere to sell it; all I needed to do is to bring a box of crystals to my work place and open it, and someone would immediately offer to buy it. Same with the clothes…if I told my friends I had a pair of shoes from Hungary, or Yugoslavia, no one would even ask to look at them or the size, everyone just begged me to sell it. They knew if it didn’t fit them or anyone in the family, they could always sell it too. Everyone had money, but any sort of colourful or luxury goods were missing. It’s not like we didn’t have quality goods…yes, we had high quality, leather shoes which could serve you for ten years, but God, they looked so ugly, you wouldn’t want them to last even a season.”

With a little bit of creativity, the party ideology would often become a trap for itself. My father, among many others, have mastered this art of reversing the system. Using the rhetoric’s of spreading international friendship and solidarity, utilising his position of a commercial director at a local plant and his acquaintances in the French Consulate, he soon turned to organising trips from his plant to industrial fares and professional exhibitions in France. He was going on a trip as a plant representative and an organiser and therefore could pick a few people for his team; usually some people who helped to get the decision passed at the plant or could pay the expense of the trip. The plant thus received the fame of international promotion, my father, a free trip to France and the visibility of creative initiative in the party reports.

Lessons 

Throughout the years, collapse of the regime and post-soviet depression my parents have not lost their fascination for “abroad”. My mother made a few more tourist trips to Bulgaria, Hungary and Finland and lost her enthusiasm only after a couple of shuttle trips to Poland, when she was intimidated by the petty buy-and-sell nature of the many trips organised after the fall of the USSR. My father practiced his industrial exhibition scheme well into 1990s. Finally, in the late 1990 and early 2000 he went for several years as a labour migrant to Great Britain and the US, working in agriculture and as a unskilled manual worker. However, no matter where he would go abroad and on what business, he said he would always find a pretext and plan his route in such a way as to stop by in Paris, even if just for a day. The soviet times he recalls with mixed feelings:

“There was no problem to enter any country; the problem was to leave the USSR. It was impossible to imagine, that someone would deny entry or treat unjustly a Soviet citizen. Now it is all different; you take out your Ukrainian passport and they look at you as if you are only half-human. Before, if you took out a Soviet passport, no one would dare mess with you, because they knew they would get themselves into a Cold War scandal or provocation. Now they know that our country will never defend any of its citizens…that the feeling of being backed-up by a huge state, of being a first class citizen… I think I miss that. It’s strange, how after the fall of the USSR everything has changed, just as we hoped it would… it’s kind of sad though that it has changed in such an unexpectedly bad direction. I guess the old joke about the communists was true after all: ‘Everything they said about the Communism was a lie, but everything they said about the Capitalism was true.’” 

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